Balestrere, James (1891-c1959)

Born Palermo, Sicily, June 24, 1891.

Died Kansas City, MO, c. 1959.

Born in Palermo, Sicily, Balestrere initially settled with his family in Milwaukee(1), in spring 1903(2). When he was a teenager, his family moved to the Kansas City area.
Balestrere became a bigshot in the Kansas City outfit during Prohibition. Though a stone mason(3) by trade, he is believed to have teamed with the DiGiovanni brothers - Joseph and Pietro - in a bootlegging-related venture, supplying sugar to moonshine operations.(4)

After Prohibition the K.C. mob seems to have been under the control of Charles Binaggio, connected to the Pendergast political machine. Binaggio might also have had a hand in St. Louis-area gambling(5). Some believe Binaggio was merely a front man, while underworld orders continued to come from Joseph DiGiovanni(6).

At that time, Balestrere put his mason skills to use constructing a local restaurant/casino. (He previously worked operating a grocery store and a drug store.) The gambling establishment became known as "the White House." In the late 1930s, Balestrere also managed a keno game for Pendergast.(7)

Binaggio and his chief lieutenant Charles "Mad Dog" Gargotta were murdered on April 5, 1950, at a political headquarters(8). At the time, Missouri Senator James P. Kem called the murders an outgrowth of "the unholy alliance between politics and the underworld in Kansas City."(9).

Balestrere reportedly was a partner in the leadership group that followed Binaggio. Control of the K.C. mob looks to have been shared by Balestrere, Thomas "Tano" Lococo, Charles Carollo and former Binaggio ally Anthony Gizzo(10).

Some pronounce Gizzo the supreme boss in the city's underworld from 1950 until his death of natural causes in 1953(11). However, the Kefauver Committee, after hearing Balestrere's testimony in September 1950, decided that Balestrere was the big man(12).

The date of Balstrere's death is somewhat in doubt. A headstone at Kansas City's Calvary Cemetery indicates that he died in 1959. Death years in the earlier 1950s are often cited by historians.(13)

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Notes:

  1. . Fox, Blood and Power, p. 37. A Mafia clan in Milwaukee had a similar-sounding name spelled "Balestrieri" or "Balestreri."
  2. . Passport application dated Feb. 21, 1923; U.S Census Records, 1930.
  3. . Ibid. World War I Draft Records, 1917.
  4. . Fox, op. cit. In testimony before the Kefauver Committee, Sept. 30, 1950, Balestrere admitted only to supplying sugar to those engaged in the manufacture of "moonshine": "Kefauver clears Kansas City police," New York Times, Oct. 1, 1950, p. 81. Roots of the sugar business were traced back to a black market enterprise during World War I: May, Allan. "The History of the Kansas City Family," ItalKC.com.
  5. . Kefauver Committee Report #3.
  6. . "Organized Crime Syndicates" website - Kansas City
  7. . "Kefauver clears...," op. cit.
  8. . "Binaggio, Kansas City political figure...," Sedalia (Mo) Democrat, Apr. 6, 1950, p. 1.
  9. . "President asked to halt Kansas City crime wave," Sikeston (Mo) Herald, Apr. 20, 1950, p. 10.
  10. . Kefauver Committee, op. cit. Virgil Peterson testimony to Kefauver panel.
  11. . "Organized Crime Syndicates," op. cit.
  12. . Kefauver Committee, op. cit.
  13. . Hayde, Frank R., The Mafia and the Machine, Fort Lee NJ: Barricade, 2007; "James G. Balestrere," Find-a-Grave ( http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=16782970 ).